From the closet, with wine

A few weeks ago I decided to do something that was a not particularly great idea, and that was take my two youngest children - Gabe who is 8, and Aidy who is 4 - to the grocery store around 5 pm, the approximate hour that their inner demons spill out onto full display; when they are willing to slash eachother’s throats for no reason and deliver me, their innocent mother, to the gates of hell without a single regret because they are so hungry and I, evildoer that I am, have no immediate snack to proffer. So hungry that no one has ever conceived of such hunger and never will because, in fact, the intensity of the feeling has not historically been felt before by the human species. This, despite starving people in compromised nations. This, despite the regular size blueberry muffins they consumed just 40 minutes prior. Regular size, not even the mini ones, because I knew of their dire situation, having not eaten since one-and-a-half hours before during afternoon snack.

(Yeah, I know. French children and raising mannerly kids and etc. But they hold it together during school so if they’re going to take it out on someone I am grateful it’s me. Also, this is not one of those blog posts where I explain how I know I don’t have it that bad or could do better, because I am not particularly feeling that at this juncture).

I took them to the store - briefly, to buy just a few items - where there was plentiful post-season Easter candy on display and elderly people who didn’t think getting run over by a wayward preschooler with a sparkly headband was at all cute. They spent the 30 seconds I was looking at the coffee selection trying to stomp on eachother’s feet as hard as possible, and touched like 400 of the 500 KinderJoy eggs sitting right there at the checkout - placed strategically to ruin parents’ lives - as though their proximity to and aggressive handling of them would persuade a purchase. Which it did not.

Gabe and Aidy…they don’t really like eachother. I don’t say this with sadness, because I firmly believe that time will make them closer, and I can already see the glimmer of a slow-but-sure not-exactly-friends-but-not-as-serious-enemies situation forming between them now that Aidy is getting a little bigger. She’s a much more physical child than Nora, Gabe’s OG playmate, and admiringly follows her big brother around as he teaches her things like how to get the most lift jumping off a living room armchair. I allow it because it’s preferable to simmering resentment.

But they are also such different personalities. Gabe is an introvert and problem-solver, a lover of puzzles and word games. Aidy is an extreme extrovert who can’t pass a stranger without telling a story and sometimes deliver unexpected hand holding and other symbols of her affection (which we are having some conversations about because, “not everybody wants a thigh massage, Aidy.”)

I told J recently that Aidy reminds me of how I feel when I’m sitting at a bar and have had a martini and there are all these people to talk to and if I can’t talk to them I might die. I don’t know what it is, this urgent need to connect, to learn all the life stories, whether or not the subjects in question are in the mood to hand them over. This is how Aidy is all the time, though. 24/7.

I think shortly after she was born (that event in itself a questionable family decision in my middle child’s opinion) and it became clear that her personality was, you know, rather in-your-face, Gabe was like, “Oh hell no. This is not what I signed up for. I signed up for peace and quiet and following the spoken and unspoken rules and definitely not a wild and tiny human who climbs into my bed with me when I’m trying to fall asleep and sings ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and then tells me about her day in toddler-speak, for the love of god” (which is, by the way, what he got when Nora moved into her own room at our old place and Gabe and Aidy, by necessity, became roommates, although they each have their own bedrooms now, thankfully).

Anyway, the point is that they fight more vehemently and persistently than Gabe and Nora ever did (more creatively, too. The other day Aidy told Gabe that he was a “stinky diaper” and she was going to “wear him”). By the end of that grocery trip they were at eachother’s throats, literally, and I was pretty much done being a parent, not literally but almost. When we got home, there was complaining about dinner and general insanity surrounding bedtime, and J was just as overwhelmed as I was.

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None of this is abnormal, but on that day it felt too normal, if that makes sense. Like I needed a true break if I was going to remain in this house and look after these people for the foreseeable future. So I took a glass of wine and went into my bedroom closet. This was, I realize, a banal act representative of stereotypical motherhood. The type of stuff glorified on parenting blogs and in memes. It was not original or clever that I retreated to a space that had a door with a glass of alcohol. But I’d never really done it before and I wanna tell you guys something: everybody knew I was in there, and for some reason the seriousness of the measure - the novelty of it - communicated that I meant business. They left me alone. I mean, maybe J told them to leave me alone, taking the hint when I shouted “I’m going into the closet with my wine, leave me alone!” (thank you, J) but whatever the case, they did it.

I sat in there in that space (a space that is not that big by the way, but has a nice, round window) with my clothes and handbags and this total sense of myself, surrounded by things that belong to me alone, and thought about the various annoyances this life has to offer, and I eventually started to feel better. Capable again.

Best yet, I became aware that should I not feel capable in the future, I could come back. This bar was always open, and very convienient, although, unfortunately, there were no people to talk to when I got the urge. That’s why, once I was sitting there for a bit, I went to get my computer and started writing this post, which I’m just finishing now. I have my closet, and I have wine, and I have all of you. Next time, let’s do it in person.

I went on vacation and learned a couple things (OR: a very casual manifesto)

I went to Mexico for a week in February without my husband or children. While you take a moment to stop and wonder at this, I’ll point out my good fortune in being able to do so: the vacation, which I took with my mom and a group of friends who live near her in Maryland and organize this trip annually, was possible for me only because of trusted family and babysitters and because I have a husband, who, when I mentioned taking such a trip said, “Yes! You’ve gotta go!”

In terms of taking the time for a warm, utterly relaxing, margarita-laden, culturally-stimulating getaway with my mother and my new friends, leaving J and the kids in the neverending artic tundra that is Connecticut in February, well - yeah, to be honest - I felt like I deserved it. First of all, my mother and I were supposed to go on this trip last year, but she got a bad case of pneumonia so we spent that week, instead, learning to manage an oxygen tank she had to use very temporarily, thank god, and watching “The Crown.”

This thing - this issue of deserving it - is something I think about much less than it did in my earlier incarnations of being a mom, when I had to remind myself that I deserved a shower, for instance, or dinner out with friends that meant missing bedtime. A greater sense of being ok with it all is part of what I’ve learned - earned, maybe - over the passing years and with growing children. I didn’t wrestle with myself too much about whether or not I should get go on this trip. I should! Everybody should! We all, whatever our place in life, deserve a break when we can afford to take one, however that break manifests, whether its a backyard and a beer or seeing flamingos in the wild in Mexico. Which, I will get to!

What I wrestled with was the logistics. With Gabe and Nora in one school and Aidy in another, my existence seems so caught up in theirs, and crucial to our daily lives. Although the former two walk to school with a crew of friendly neighbors (I love you, neighbors), there are carpools to activities, and J does his part picking up kids during the hours he’s off work, I am mostly responsible for ensuring everyone gets out the door and where they are supposed to be on any given weekday. And, although we continue strategize ways to delegate this responsibility, I am generally responsble for buying and cooking nearly everything our family eats. Also, although everyone claims to love her so very much, I do not see any other members of the family taking initiative and walking our beloved dog.

But, as I told J, “I don’t want to not go on this trip because I can’t figure out who is going to pick up Aidy from ballet on Thursday afternoon.” So I booked the tickets and we figured it out.

Well. Mostly. And that’s important. Because in addition to becoming more relaxed about things like taking vacations or time to myself, I’ve also learned that if you leave people, including your family, to their own devices, they will almost always work out the details.

(There is one specific example of this I keep bringing up to people, so apologies if I’ve already shared this with you, as it is not particularly riveting. For a long while I felt completely overwhelmed by all the food prep I was doing for our family, since, as I mentioned, it’s largely my responsibility. So this year, instead of continuning to explain to J what a drain this was on my energy and hoping he would suddenly get inspired to cook us multi-course meals every night, I took one of my most nagging responsibilities - lunch making - and delegated that task to him a few days a week. He could do it however he wanted but I would not have any part of it on those days. He has happily, ambitiously, tackled this task and I feel much less encumbered. I am not even remotely saying that my husband is a hero for making lunches, and it should be noted that there are household tasks he does that I don’t touch. What I am saying is that instead of trying to mindwarp him into “wanting” to do tasks that both of us find annoying, it was better for me to simply ask him to help in a specific way, and no longer dictate the process from there. Now some people might be able to internalize a banality like this, not needing to air their thought process in a public format, but I am not one of them, so please excuse this run-on paranthetical aside, and, I guess, please excuse this entire blog, since it is mainly based on endless explanations like this. Anyway, realizing I could delegate a task on the domestic front then assume the task would be done correctly and ask no further questions was kind of a revelation to me.)

So, J and I planned out most of the days for when I was away (THANK YOU SHEILA!) but not all of them, I packed my bag with summer clothes, which felt like a vacation in itself, and flew to Merida, Mexico, where I spent a week at Hacienda Petac, a.k.a. paradise, a.k.a. possibly the most relaxed I’ve been in my adult life.

The accomadations are built for one group at a time, so me, my mom and her travel partners - a wonderful, well-traveled, inquisitive, and hilarious group of individuals - were the only ones there. All meals were included, as well as margaritas, which the staff offered regularly but not insistently (the ideal level of margarita-offering, in other words). There were lovely grounds I explored on the one and only run I attempted during the trip, jogging at a slow pace as I tried not to trample geckos and then scared myself into thinking there were maybe more than geckos - snakes? dragons? - in the tall grass along the path and ended the run ten minutes in (a margarita erased any remaining stress from this incident).

There was a pool, a small spa, there were hammocks and, perhaps most enthralling for this Connecticut transplant who has tried and failed to get into winter, there were flowers everywhere. Creeping up the original wall of the hacienda and blooming heavy on draping vines. I could smell them as I drank my morning coffee - delivered straight to my room - and read the Michelle Obama autobiography on the rocking chair outside my door. And there were flowers at every meal, incorporated into the always-gorgeous table setup provided by the inventive, lovely staff.

Best of all, though, this trip was steeped in culture, reminding me why I love traveling so much and providing a swift kick of a reminder to get more of it into our lives. Each meal was in the Yucatan style, and, as part of the hacienda’s offerings, we took several cooking classes, where we learned to make corn tortillas and colorful vegetable soup. We took day trips. One was to Merida, where we toured the teeming marketplace. I bought ground pumpkin seeds, a local specialty that are, admittedly, still sitting in my fridge. But it makes me so happy every time I spot the bag; that rich, brown hue. I bought gifts for the kids from kind vendors with stalls set up in the city center, and sampled Mexican chocolate. Another day trip featured a boat trip in Celestun to see the famed flamingos that flock there, hundreds of stalks of pink in a ruddy, shallow expanse of water. Then we steered through the mangroves, saw a bunch of birds that J would have been VERY excited about, and ended the day beachside with beers and plates of fresh squid, bows of ceviche and heaps of fried plantains.

On my last full day there, I took a trip to Uxmal, an ancient Mayan city. My mom came along for the ride, although I was the only one who toured the site, as the others had done so on previous trips. The sun was brutal and there were a lot of steps, but I enjoyed every second, soaking up historic details from the guide I’d been advised to hire while rocking a baseball cap and sensible shoes. I was far from home and in the throes of ancient civilization. I couldn’t get enough of that hot hot heat, knowing that the following day I’d be plunged back into the deep freeze of winter. It’d be almost March, sure, but as we all know, March is a cruel joke.

I didn’t miss my family, exactly, but at least in the beginning, I really wished they were there - kind of a backwards homesick - and couldn’t wait to plan a trip there for all of us, which is 100 percent something I’d like to make happen. I missed J a lot. I had to stop myself from texting him constantly about all the sights and sounds and wildlife and food and funny moments.

I quickly came to realize, however, that although I’d set out hoping for nothing more than some quality time with my wonderful mom, a break from daily demands and indulgence in warmth, relaxation and the adventure of a new place, the trip was more than that.

I was obviously not alone, but traveling by myself - detaching from the person who has to be on time for all those pickups and dropoffs every week - was so immediately mind-altering that it was shocking. Having an hour before breakfast and getting to ask myself what I wanted to do with it, so foreign (and it turns out what I want to do is have coffee and read my Michelle Obama book and smell the flowers). I floated in the pool and talked to my new friends about their children and grandchildren. I gossipped with my mom. I listened to music while getting ready in my room. I took tons and tons of pictures of colorful Mexican tiles.

It was uniquely refreshing to be on a trip like that. Not really beholden to anyone or having to adjust to someone else’s desires or plans. Not plagued by decision fatigue except for making the continual decision: do I or do I not want a margarita?

Now this isn’t news. That taking a vacation from life’s daily stresses is a good idea. Or that taking a break from your children - even your husband - can provide needed introspection and a mental renewal of sorts. That sunshine and a warm breeze and someone else doing the cooking will make you feel really, really good.

What did surprise me was how energized I felt, and so quickly. How full my mind had been of the emotional and actual labor it takes to keep family and work and everything else moving along, and how overwhelming that fullness was. How fast I was able to recalibrate to a more peaceful state.

We all say these things: be more present, and don’t sweat the small stuff and you only live once and act with intention. Another one of the great things about getting older, at least to me, is realizing the value in all of that. I get it. But I wouldn’t say that over the past few months I’ve been particularly good at it.

I was reminded of how it feels, though, when I went away on my own and slowing down was quite literally the only option. I mean, with one activity planned per day, and sometimes zero activities planned, what are you gonna do? Take another run through the woods? No. Too many scary geckos.

I slowed down and decided that not only did I want my family to travel more, but I wanted more of this vacation attitude in my real life. Sure, some of that is planning a homemade tortilla night, and making my children listen to Yucatan-style guitar music, like, all the time, get over it, this is what we listen to now.

A more important step is trying to remember, at least occassionally, what I felt like when I was on vacation and not trying to remember every last thing. And accepting that maybe it’s my vacation mind that’s in the more normal state, and not the other way around. That maybe it’s not normal to have 17 different action-items buzzing around in your brain on any given day, from attending an assembly at school to responding to five different email invites to scheduling a phone interview to doing a load of laundry because someone, inevitably, doesn’t have any underwear.

I can’t stress this enough: I feel beyond lucky to have the above responsibilities, not to mention so incredibly lucky to have gone on a trip that so positively impacted me, while totally avoiding sunburn.

I just don’t want to be so regularly hard on myself for occasional failures to be on top of so much. Because I’ve decided - after letting my thoughts drift among birdsong and learning about ancient rain gods - that a breakneck but somehow also fun approach to daily life is maybe not so achievable after all.

Just last week we were headed to Art Night at Nora and Gabe’s elementary school, a creative, adorable event that is exactly what it sounds like: a celebration of and call to do some art with fellow students, parents and the staff. We were hanging out at home eating dinner and probably listening to some Mexican guitar music, planning on getting to Art Night a little but not too late when Nora remembered that she was playing violin with the orchestra at the outset at the evening. Now, she just started violin this year, and orchestra is a semi-weekly school activity. I love that she’s part of it, but I’m not talking about Carnegie Hall or anything. Still, she had an obligation to be there. She’d mentioned this to me a few days prior, but I’d forgotten. Evidently, so had she.

So we grabbed her violin, threw on coats and rushed out the door. The school is less than half a mile away and we’d planned on walking. I figured with parking an issue at the school on a busy night like that one, it was still the fastest way. J pulled into the driveway just as we were dashing out the front door and I yelled to him to bring Aidy seperately, as she would inevitably take longer to get to get there, needing to inspect every specimen of plant life and talk to every neighbor along the way.

Me and Nora and Gabe rushed down the sidewalk and I told Nora to run, RUN, ahead of us and go straight to the gym, where they were playing. And she ran, with her hair streaming behind her, stopping a few times to look questioningly back at me, and then I’d yell at her to keep going. I was so mad at myself for not remembering she needed to be there on time, plus kind of mad at her for the same. But the evening air was not quite as cold as normal, and it was the in-house orchestra at Art Night for christ’s sake. I yelled to Nora again. “Run, but if you don’t make it, it’s ok.” It would be ok, and was also ok that I hadn’t remembered, because remembering all these things is, I’m starting to think, actually impossible. It’s impossible, and fine, I told myself, and felt a solid block of calm land and envelop the night. “It’s no big deal either way, Nora!” I called out. I took a breath. I strolled. No flowers yet, but they were coming. She made it just in time.